• Catherine Backus, MT-BC

Insider's Guide to Songwriting for Emotional & Social Health

Updated: Nov 7, 2019


I have a confession to make: I was an emo kid. We’re a dying breed- the Vans Warped Tour just finished its last run, and scene music has been replaced by a preponderance of ukuleles and computerized beats. Kids just don’t angst like they used to.


But I digress- for me, a pretty sheltered kid in suburban Tennessee, (my hometown calls itself a “city,” but that’s a stretch),

the unbridled emotionality of my favorite bands gave me permission to feel my feelings, and to express them in my own songwriting

...from the age of 12 on. I remember a lyric from one of those bands, meant to be tongue-in-cheek, that now seems like solid therapeutic advice:

“Why don’t you cry about it? Why don’t you write a sad, sad song about it? Dry your eyes and you just might live to talk about it.”

I believe that a large part of

a music therapist’s role is in making the creation of music accessible to anyone,

regardless of what prior barriers they may have encountered.


Writing songs with clients is a great way to unlock their creativity, express emotions in a healthy way, increase group cohesion, and create ownership of the narrative.

While I may have evolved from pop-punk to folk music in my own writing, I think each and every genre is appropriate for using in the therapeutic process.

I teach songwriting classes from time to time, and stress to students that my goal is never to get someone to write like me- it’s to help them write their best song.

In the same way that individuals may create music differently, the therapeutic songwriting process may take different forms, depending on the:

1) goals of the song,

2) the group dynamic,

3) and the musical or lyrical resources of the writers.

Benefits of Songwriting

Songwriting has proven to be an effective technique in developing group cohesiveness, enhancing self-expression, increasing self-esteem, and developing insight into feelings and needs, both of self and of others. [1]”

Because songs can be flexible, songwriting is an appropriate intervention for any population.


Songs often serve as a “container” of sorts for

emotional content.

It can be easier to write a lyric than to make a verbal statement, and lyrics often leave room for many meanings to be projected upon them.

In mental health settings, songwriting interventions can lead to higher attendance rates and reported enjoyment of participants compared to verbal instruction.[2]

Songwriting can be a way for people with dementia to discover skills they didn’t know they have, and for their caregivers to recognize capabilities they had overlooked:


“Group songwriting was emphasized as a positive, enjoyable, and rewarding experience.

Both people with dementia (PWD) and staff members described TSW as:

(a) motivating participation;

(b) enhancing confidence to actively engage;

(c) highlighting ability and leading to feelings of accomplishment; and

(d) stimulating engagement in creative, cognitive, language, and learning processes.[3]”

In treatment situations that are time-limited, writing a song and recording it can be a way to remember the work that was done in music therapy.

This can be particularly impactful in settings such as hospice.

Creating Songs

Writing a song from scratch is intimidating if you haven’t done it before.

Generally, when I introduce the concept of songwriting to a client or group, I start with a structured intervention, and work towards more abstract creation from there.

Usually, we begin with a “Madlib” style song, where one or two words are replaced from a chorus in order to create meaning.


For example, I might have group members choose different cities to replace the given one in “Kansas City,” after which we may discuss each person’s connection to the locale they chose.

Next, I might work on a lyric rewrite of a familiar song.

I once took the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” and changed the words to address the topic of personal space and boundaries with a group.

The sky’s the limit when it comes to what you want to address and which musical source material you want to use.

Finally, I’ll work on creating an entirely new song with a client.

Depending on their own musical experience, this may play out differently. If a client doesn’t play any instruments, I might ask them to give me a few emotional words to reflect how they want their song to sound, and then play back chord progressions for them to choose from.


Using digital production suites like Garageband or Logic, songwriters who don’t play instruments can create sounds on the computer[4].

We might use analogues like other artists or songs- “I want it to sound like _____”. If a client plays an instrument, I’ll let them take the lead musically, and work on accompaniment, as appropriate.

With lyrics, a client might feel comfortable writing them independently, or we may co-write if they feel stuck in a rhyme scheme.

Some clients insist they aren’t capable of writing a song, but when they see their words reflected back at them, realize new capabilities.

I frequently wrote songs with older clients in hospice care, working with them to work their life narrative into a musical form that we could record for their families.

Digital technology is an amazing aid when it comes to recording and preserving songs. On the simplest level, an iPhone voice memo serves as a reminder of what was written and how it sounds, when musical notation isn’t involved (it’s a lot quicker to do a voice memo than to write out a full chord chart and melody line!).


Using a laptop, a mobile interface, and a decent microphone, I can create studio-quality recordings with clients wherever they are.

In a group setting, songwriting can serve as the culmination of our work together- a summary of what we’ve learned and what we’ll take out into the world.

Making copies of lyrics for group members to take with them can be a helpful reminder of the skills in our toolbox, and a validation of their own words and ideas.

It’s a lot more powerful to express why YOU want to make a change than for someone else to tell you why you should.

Are You Sure that Everyone Is a Songwriter?

Yes.

I’m sorry- do you want more justification?

I firmly believe that with the right tools, supports, and technology, anyone is capable of creating a great song, whether that’s a re-write of some of their favorite lyrics or an entirely new soundscape that reflects the emotional complexities of their lived experience.


As a therapeutic tool, songwriting creates a safe container for so many difficult-to-express things.

Hearing a finished song both validates the feelings behind it, and leads to a feeling of success and accomplishment.

Working together in a group setting to write a song leads to better group cohesion, teamwork, and problem-solving skills.

Once clients successfully write their first song, a whole world of possibility opens up, and a new coping skill is available as a processing tool.

I believe every single person has a song and a book inside them- it just so happens that songs are a little less time-consuming to write.

Catherine, MT-BC


Are you interested in learning

how songwriting can help your child

process and express emotions?

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[1] Edgerton, C. (1990). Creative Group Songwriting. Music Therapy Perspectives, 8(1), 15–19. https://doi.org/10.1093/mtp/8.1.15 [2] Silverman, M.J. (2011). The Effect of Songwriting on Knowledge of Coping Skills and Working Alliance in Psychiatric Patients: A Randomized Clinical Effectiveness Study. Journal of Music Therapy, 48(1), 103–122. https://doi.org/10.1093/jmt/48.1.103 [3]Baker, F.A.; Stretton-Smith, P.A. (2018). Group Therapeutic Songwriting and Dementia: Exploring the Perspectives of Participants Through Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. Music Therapy Perspectives, 36(1), 50–66. https://doi.org/10.1093/mtp/mix016 [4] Viega, M. A Humanistic Understanding of the Use of Digital Technology in Therapeutic Songwriting. Music Therapy Perspectives, 36(3),1-9. https://doi.org/10.1093/mtp/miy014

#songwriting #musicispower #musictherapy #livemusic #wellness #seniormusicwellnessgroup #hospice #socialskills #social #olderadult

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